"You're not a thoroughbred racehorse. You're a donkey. You can become a very fast donkey, but you'll never be a thoroughbred......."Flashback to transfer deadline day August 2011 and AC Milan have already announced that, for them, the window is "closed, in fact it’s very closed." But Adriano Galliani can’t help himself. Like a punter at the races, the Italian entrepreneur who serves as vice-president and C.E.O. of the Rossoneri fancies another flutter, backing a horse everyone else thought was a donkey. The odds are long, writes James Horncastle, but as with Tipperary Tim, Gregalach, Caughoo, Foinavon and Mon Mome, all of whom were 100-1 winners at the Grand National, his outside bet comes home. "It was a stroke of luck," smiled the man who made his name by securing high profile transfers to Milan at cut prices, such as Robinho and Mario Balotelli from Manchester City, Zlatan Ibrahimović from FC Barcelona and Kaká from Real Madrid C.F. So lucky, in fact, that the term A colpo alla Nocerino has now entered the rich vocabulary of Italian football. It refers to the player involved that fateful day when Galliani had a gamble on Antonio Nocerino. "I understand what it means," the midfielder shrugs. "Someone who costs little." He would prove a bargain, perhaps the best signing of that Serie A season. Nocerino was bought from Palermo for £500,000 with barely a few minutes to spare before the market shut. He had been training under the Sicilian sun contemplating the season ahead when a member of the club’s staff came over to relay the news. Speaking to Forza Italian Football, Galliani recounted how he bargained hard: "At one in the afternoon of the last day of the transfer window, someone came running into my office saying that Palermo were selling Nocerino. I found Zamparini as quickly as I could and made an offer. I started low to be honest. He said no but I waited all afternoon and then we called Nocerino who was with the Italian team and we reached an agreement. Then Palermo said yes to the sale. It was a real stroke of luck."
At the time Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini was quick to explain the motivation related to the sale of Nocerino. "He is an important player, but I had to sell him now because otherwise he would have just ended up at Milan anyway in 2012," he stated. "Also I believe he no longer had the motivation to stay in Palermo." In truth, wrote Jack Sargeant, the Palermo owner and his brain-trust were adamant that Edgar Barreto, the €5.3 million man from Atalanta, was an upgrade from Antonio. So it was, he stated, that a player easily worth around €10 million- the only player on the team who started all 38 league games- was snatched in a case of pure daylight robbery. The Rosanero had already sold Javier Pastore for €42 million that summer and lost their most consistent, committed and important player. However, noted Kris Voakes, those two statements have no relation to one another. While Paris Saint-Germain paid through the nose for the Argentine, the Sicilians received only a pittance for Nocerino, and it is the midfielder who made a bigger impact at his new club, as well as proving the bigger loss at the Renzo Barbera. "I'm still not sure why Palermo allowed my contract to run down into its last 12 months," the Italian international told the Corriere dello Sport. "I wasn't at an age or had significant enough wages which would have forced Palermo to sell me in that way. I don't know if there was someone there who didn't believe in me. I was disappointed at the start as I left behind some good friends. I was expecting to sign an extension to my contract and I was ready to. It looks like it was my fault that I left, that I wanted more money or that I wasn't happy. All of that is not true."
Mathieu Flamini’s cruciate ligament injury the previous day had prompted Milan to find a player to cover for him during the several months that he would be missing. Yet the move for Nocerino was still a surprise, and, judging by the adverse reaction of the fans, not a pleasant one at that. He was ridiculed. The general consensus about Nocerino at Milan, notes Horncastle, was that he was beneath them. Although Alberto Aquilani had been brought in as Andrea Pirlo’s replacement, the move for Nocerino was seen in the context of Pirlo’s exit. Both transfers were former Juventus players, and there was a sense that Milan’s rivals were benefiting at their expense. How could Milan let a player of Pirlo’s calibre go for nothing, move to Turin and then buy not one but two Juventus cast offs? Adding further insult to injury in their eyes was the shirt Milan chose to give Nocerino. It was the No 22 and had belonged to Kaká. Milan were champions of Italy, but to some this was already a sign of their decline. "If even Nocerino can play for Milan, so can I," was the mocking refrain among the fans at San Siro; "thoroughbreds don’t want to run with donkeys." It was harsh to say the least. "Far from being a coup, I was treated like a slap in the face," Nocerino told La Repubblica. "I wasn’t worthy of Milan. It was the usual case of judging a player without giving him the time or the chance to make any mistakes. Thank goodness I didn’t make any." He kept his head down, his nose clean and worked hard. With a hint of derogation Italians attribute such qualities to those of a Mexican: loyal, hard-working, dedicated, humble, they say, and willing to do the dirty work when others are not. But then that’s Nocerino’s way. That’s how he got to Milan in the first place. "I’m thick-skinned," he reassured La Gazzetta dello Sport. "All Southerners have to be."
The son of a railway worker, Nocerino grew up in Montecalvario, a rione at the northern end of the Spanish Quarters of Naples. It’s where he first kicked a ball and made his first tackle. His father ran an amateur football club called San Paolo and it was there that he caught the eye of Juventus. Although tempting to paint a picture of young Antonio as the stereotypical 'Neapolitan street urchin' it is not something he invites. "I was born in the district of Saint Lucia," he states, "but by the age of 14 years I was already in Turin at the Juve youth academy." Though he met his future wife Federica there and was taken in by her family, life wasn’t easy. He missed home and it was never certain he’d make it despite being thought of as one of the most promising youngsters in his age group. Typically, Nocerino was realistic enough to take steps to plan for a future outside of the game. "When I was in the youth ranks at Juve, there were at least 300 kids who wanted to be in my position. I graduated as an accountant, but football was my dream. I’m proof that even those born in the South can build their own destiny." To accomplish that, though, Nocerino had to do what Italians call la gavetta. He worked himself up from the bottom. Graduating to the senior squad in the 2003-04 season, Nocerino would not make an appearance for La Vecchia Signora. Instead, like most talented young players, he was loaned out to a lower division club, Serie B side Avellino, for the season, making 34 appearances for them. Under the guidance of Zdenek Zeman he learned from one of the finest and most creative minds in the game. It was a formative experience. "It’s all down to him," Nocerino claimed. "I was 17 and fed up with the hierarchy [at Juventus]. Zeman said: 'For me there are no youngsters and no veterans. Everyone is equal and who runs the most plays'. Working with him was unforgettable. He taught me the runs and the moves that I still apply. You know the famous 'cuts' Barcelona use? Well, he used them before Barcelona. His Foggia did many of those things."
At the end of that season Genoa bought him on a co-ownership deal. The price was €450.000 for half his rights with Domenico Criscito and Francesco Volpe going to Juventus. Still developing his game, observed Horncastle, Nocerino was continually farmed around on loan. After making a total of 5 appearances for Genoa he would have spells three different Serie B clubs (Catanzaro, Crotone, and Messina) in the next two years. Genoa then sold their half of the player's registration to Serie B stalwarts Piacenza; Nocerino's sixth club having just turned 21 years of age. It was there that he encountered Beppe Iachini, another coach who’d bring an influence to bear on his career. "I watched him in training and I noticed that he had the shot and the timing of a striker when it came to getting into the box," recalls Iachini. "I asked him, 'how do you feel about it?' And we tried it. That year he scored six goals, hit the post, crossbar and got a number of assists too. Juve took him back." An expensive mistake, it would cost the Bianconeri €3.7 million to recapture the player they had previously discarded. Although Iachini had struck upon Nocerino’s best position, the left-side of midfield, at Juventus that was still strictly the preserve of Pavel Nedved. A spot on the right was open on account of Mauro Camoranesi’s injury woes and when Claudio Ranieri offered it up to Nocerino, he jumped at the opportunity. Soon to be a regular in the team- he played 32 appearances for the club during that 2007-08 season- Nocerino did enough to persuade Roberto Donadoni to give him a debut for Italy in a friendly against South Africa. Juventus still weren’t convinced, though, and he was sold to Palermo as part of the deal for Amauri. If that £20m transfer wasn’t already considered a colossal disaster, notes Horncastle, then looking back the inclusion of Nocerino as a €7,5 million makeweight makes it look even worse. They say that hindsight is 20/20, of course, but most agree that a deal so wrong on every conceivable level represented the last time Maurizio Zamparini was ever considered a genius.
Of course, that’s easy to say now. It wasn’t until later that Nocerino started to show signs of being the player he would become. Initially he found himself floundering on the periphery of the first team, down on his luck and contemplating yet another move. Then Delio Rossi arrived as replacement for Walter Zenga and little by little, piece by piece, he started to put together a series of reliable if unexceptional performances. Though their positions are different, for a time, he was Italy’s Alvaro Arbeloa, thinks Horncastle. Always a 7 out of 10, rarely higher, but crucially never lower either. Over the course of three seasons and 106 appearances, Nocerino's and Palermo's reputation would steadily rise. In Rossi's first season the Sicilians, aided by surprise results such as away wins against both AC Milan and Juventus, ended the season in fifth place. The following year brought Palermo's return to European football in the form of the UEFA Europa League and a third Coppa Italia final appearance, where they eventually lost 3-1 to Internazionale. It was at this point that Adriano Galliani made his now famous intervention. What is beyond debate is that Nocerino's last season in pink, in tandem with Pastore, was his best to date. "Nocerino is not Johan Cruyff," Rossi would tell La Gazzetta dello Sport. "But he is a good player and his story is one that reconciles you with football." Why? Because he got to Milan, not on ability alone, but through force of his own will, argues Hornchurch. For that reason, Nocerino has inevitably been likened to Rino Gattuso, not because of where they play on the pitch or a mutual enthusiasm for facial hair, but rather on account of the fact they’ve made up for any of their shortcomings with heart and desire. Nothing has ever been handed to them on a plate. They’ve had to fight to get to where they are today and constantly better themselves. As Rossi suggests, it’s rewarding to watch a player like Nocerino succeed.
Those incessant Gattuso comparisons in Nocerino's fledgling Milan career would prove to be as irritating as they were erroneous. Besides, anyone that watched Palermo during Antonio's last season knew their answer to Gattuso was Armin Bacinovic —not Nocerino, who orchestrated play for the Rossonero. "I never arrived at Milan to replace him, we are completely different," he would insist in those early months. "When signing I said I was much better technically and that I also scored a few goals. Yet people continue to expect me to play in a similar manner [to Gattuso]. I do not limit myself to tackling, I like to play. I like to look for space and to score. I can do everything." Not that his protests implied any criticism of his illustrious teammate. "Rino is a very strong player," he reiterated. "It's just that I did not come here to replace him or Flamini. I came to Milan to give my own contribution." Nocerino "has all the qualities to do well at Milan", enthused director of sport Ariedo Braida. "He is an Italy player who always shows great humility on the field. He knows how to sacrifice himself for his teammates, has a solid work ethic and every now and then scores goals. He has all the qualities to do well here." As understatements go it was pretty impressive. In a remarkable debut season at the San Siro, Nocerino finished as the Rossoneri’s second top scorer behind now-PSG man Zlatan Ibrahimovic with 11 goals in 48 appearances in all competitions. Not since Romeo Benetti in 1973 has a midfielder scored that many in a season for the club, and lest we forget he eclipsed the previous record in just over half a season. Predictably his first goal would come against Palermo at the beginning of October, and in a typical show of class he refused to celebrate.
Later that same month came a hat-trick against Parma that led Galliani to believe he had seen a ghost. "I looked at the shirt number and asked myself who’d bought Kaká back from Real Madrid. Only it wasn’t Ricky, it was Nocerino." Or perhaps that should be Nocerinho? "C’mon," he scoffed. "I’m not Ronaldo. I wasn’t a bad player before, but nor am I Platini now either." Describing the experience as a "waking dream", Nocerino added: "We're two different players, and besides Kaká is a true champion." With that he also offered a far more prosaic explanation for his chosen shirt number. "I took the '22' because it is was the closest to '23 ' available." A superstitious number for many Neapolitans, it is closely associated with the Capuchin Catholic priest Padre Pio, a venerated saint in the Catholic Church. Humble to a fault, Nocerino attributed his form down to playing "with monsters of the game every week who send me through on goal" like Ibrahimovic did so wonderfully in a later game against Cagliari. In fact so beautiful was the blossoming of the understanding between the two that the Milanese media coined the name 'Noceribra'. By the time he had bagged the opening goal in AC Milan’s match against Juventus the following February, Nocerino's popularity had grown to such an extent that every Milan fan would have happily 'let the man's donkey tread on their fine linen' as the provincial Italian saying goes. When asked 'Who is the symbol of Milan?', Massimiliano Allegri told a waiting media that "it’s too easy to say Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva, so I’ll vote for Nocerino."
By the end of that miraculous season Italian national team manager Cesare Prandelli was another firmly in the ever expanding Nocerino fanclub. Having played for the Azzurrini at the U-19 through U-21 levels from 2004-2007, including captaining the U-21 side that won the Toulon Tournament in 2007, he had also led Italy at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Convinced of his leadership qualities and dependable character, Nocerino had by now become a firmly established member of the senior National team and would go on to make a telling contribution to Euro 2012 that summer. In the tense quarter-final with England in Kiev, Nocerino came off the bench to almost win the game with a disallowed goal before taking a decisive spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out. Far from being daunted by the occasion, Nocerino spoke of his relief at having been involved. "If I hadn’t," he reasoned, "then it would have felt like going to Rome and not seeing The Pope."
Now fast forward 18 months to the fag end days of the January 2014 transfer window and West Ham manager Sam Allardyce is about to take a gamble of his own. "We never thought at the start of the window that a player of Antonio’s quality would be available until the time when that transfer popped up," he said. "You have to be quick and get it done efficiently. Milan have taken Michael Essien from Chelsea, which left the door open for Antonio to come and try and play in the Premier League, which he’s very excited about. He wants to play and wants to achieve as much as he did in Italy, as well as wanting to get in the Italian squad for the World Cup. Antonio is your box-to-box midfield player and has the quality of finding space. Playing at the top level in Italy brings a great deal of experience to go with the talent he has got. He is an intelligent footballer. Our League needs players like him." So it was that an Italian international at the peak of his career went from being voted into Gran Gala del Calcio Team of the Year as one of Serie A's best midfielders (alongside Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio) to expendable "dirt-kicker" in the space of a season and a half. As a fall from grace it is as hard to explain, wrote Allan Jiang, as the Miracle of Istanbul or how Deportivo La Coruña overturned a 4-1 first-leg deficit to dump AC Milan out of the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League.
So had Nocerino's 10 goal-haul in Serie A the 2011-12 season been a fluke? asks Jiang. In the four seasons prior to that he had scored six goals in 138 league games; in the season after he played 21 games scoring two goals with a wasteful 12.5 shots per league goal average. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now at Paris Saint-Germain, he argues, it is not a coincidence that Antonio's goals have dried up. He attacked the vacant space left by opposing defenders drawn to Ibra, who would then play in an often-unmarked Nocerino. "Ibrahimovic is one of the few strikers in the world who are happy to make his teammates score," acknowledges Nocerino. "He's great at doing that. I had a fantastic relation with him. He could also have asked himself: 'Who is this Nocerino? What do you want from someone like me?' Instead he’s a really great person and I'm sorry that his public image is different - or rather; it’s very different from his private image." On pondering the goals he scored that season, Nocerino added: "I definitely improved but that was also my objective. I told myself I needed to be more determined and try to score more. I really like making runs into the box and scoring. When I've had coaches like Delio Rossi and Allegri, who both ask the midfielders to make runs into the box, I've always managed to do well. The same goes for Iachini at Piacenza; I ended up scoring 6 goals in that season."
The implication is that Allegri changed the tactical approach of the team or, at the very least, what he required of his midfielder. The following September saw Galliani's ghost take corporeal form when prodigal son Kaka returned from Real Madrid on a free transfer. Signing a multimillion pound two-year contract it would further limit Nocerino's already diminished attacking opportunities. When the Brazilian was immediately made vice-captain upon his arrival the writing was indubitably on the wall. Although hampered by an early injury, Kaka's triumphant return against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League in October was followed by a string of lauded performances. By the time he had scored his landmark 100th total goal for Milan in a match against Atalanta last month Nocerino and his goals had become a fading memory. With Allegri's sacking in mid January the last vestiges of hope for arresting Nocerino's downward spiral at Milan finally evaporated. The man who had overseen the player's meteoric rise was replaced by Clarence Seedorf; whose decision to switch to the 4-2-3-1 system was never going to benefit Nocerino's boundless box-to-box athleticism. Lacking the pure defensive discipline of a Poli and Cristante or the technical playmaking ability of a Riccardo Montolivo, by the end of January Nocerino had banked just over 800 minutes in a red and black shirt this season.
So when the call from West Ham came a couple of weeks ago Nocerino reveals his mind was made up instantly. "I was already aware of the large following that the Club has in Italy," he states. "I realise how big the fanbase is and the traditions and important history that the Club has, so I was more than happy to come to England." In truth, he says, the 'Mexican' qualities for which he was initially revered and then ultimately derided in Italy should translate perfectly to the English game. "I am really enthusiastic about playing for West Ham," he reiterates. "I am aware of the Barclays Premier League and what I will bring with me is my enthusiasm. I want to show my qualities on the pitch and not just talk about them. I feel I have got the ability and skill to adapt to the English game and I am confident that, once I am ready to play, I will be able to show the fans what I can do. I feel my qualities match what is required in the Barclays Premier League." If Nocerino has his way then he will play his way back into the Italy squad for the 2014 World Cup. "I hope so," he admits. "One of the reasons I came to West Ham and to the Premier League is to play on a regular basis. My first objective is to play for West Ham and help the Club to move up the table. From that, if I am playing well and I get picked to go to the World Cup in Brazil, that will be an added bonus." It would be quite some achievement for the boy who cost Adriano Galliani just £500,000 all those years ago. "It’s amusing and we often joked about it at Milanello," he smiles. "I often say Milan signed me for 3.000 lire and a soda. I'm not saying that I'm worth €20 million or €30 million like Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva, but in fairness I don't think I'm worth so little either." If Antonio Nocerino can help West Ham United move away from relegation and climb the table, his value to Sam Allardyce and the Hammers will be incalculable.